It can be tough to identify what nutritional wisdom is outdated and what you should follow as an athlete. So we asked a sports dietician: what are some common myths about nutrition for runners that we need to retire? Here are the top five.
Myth #1: Eating late at night will make me gain weight
Weight isn’t nearly that simple, and the timing of that late-night snack isn’t the issue. We would have to dig in a lot deeper to consider lifestyle, metabolism, and specific training to even come close to understanding the full equation of what leads a person to gain weight. Restrictive ideas like this abound in diet culture and can be dangerous, leading to unhealthy restrictions that aren’t based on scientific facts and aren’t mentally healthy or physically productive. In fact, one study in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise showed that having a high protein snack before bedtime helped increase muscle protein synthesis by 22 percent, allowing for enhanced exercise recovery.
Myth #2: Carbs are bad
This myth might have hatched more recently from the trendy, though scientifically inconclusive, ketogenic diet, or from more old-school Atkins-era diet myths. Athletes should be skeptical of any diet that restricts a certain nutrient or ingredient—our bodies need carbohydrates to produce energy. You’ll need carbohydrates readily available if you want to run at a higher percentage of your VO2max without performance impacts and, while exercising at lower intensities, fat is utilized more readily by the body and actually produces more energy per gram than carbohydrates. Though eating fewer carbohydrates during certain points of your training can be beneficial, any time a diet seeks to demonize a single ingredient or nutrient, that should be a red flag.
Myth #3: I need to be fueling with food and hydration mix on every run
You do not need to be eating and drinking your calories on every run if you are eating enough throughout the day. Where you do need to focus on fueling is on runs over 60 minutes in duration, as, on average, our bodies contain enough energy in our glycogen-stored fuel to last us 90 minutes to two hours. The general recommendation for fueling for workouts longer than an hour is to consume 40 to 90 grams of carbs, 200 to 300 calories, and 16 to 20 ounces of fluids each hour. So while you don’t need to load up on stroopwafels for your jog around the block, you should definitely be taking snacks on your two-hour training run.
Myth #4: I don’t need to worry about protein
Runners who are training consistently will need to pay attention to their protein intake. On average, endurance athletes require 1.5 to two times the amount of protein than the average person, and not getting enough protein can cause an increased risk for illness and injury, mood disruptions, and poor recovery.
How much protein you need depends on your body weight, but the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends 1.4 to two grams for every kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound runner, this would equate to about 95 to 136 grams per day. In general, a good goal is to consume 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal and 10 to 15 grams per snack.
Myth #5: I can only refuel right after my run
You’ve probably heard of the post-exercise “window of opportunity,” the 30 minutes after a hard run or workout that has been touted as the best time to eat and refuel. That’s due to the idea that the muscles are most receptive to replacing lost glycogen (or stored carbohydrates) in the half-hour immediately after a hard effort, which is important because glycogen is used for energy production during workouts. Delaying glycogen replacement can hinder an athlete’s ability to recover from longer or higher-intensity workouts and leave them open to increased injury risk.
While many nutrition experts still recommend the 30 to 60-minute refueling window post-exercise, previous research has shown that there is an increased rate of carbohydrate uptake and glycogen resynthesis in the two hours post-workout. And there might be more wiggle room when you account for the type of exercise, how much you’ve previously eaten, and what kind of shape you’re in.
Ingesting some sort of protein with a carbohydrate source can prove to be beneficial to muscle glycogen replacement, as both carbohydrates and protein work together to get glucose back into the muscle. While more specific recommendations can be given to runners based on body weight, the general recommendation is to consume 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates and 15 to 20 grams of protein.
This story originally appeared in our sister publication, Trail Runner.